Agent Provocateur

A local activist wants newspapers to get the facts straight on late-term abortions.

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Her voice is soft, tending toward the meek. It's not what one expects from an agent provocateur. Yet Marilyn Kopp has fashioned a role as a one-woman truth squad for media coverage of the abortion debate. And her beef is this: Cleveland newspapers continue to report that late-term abortions are illegal in Ohio, when it just ain't so.

Kopp's ire was initially sparked in 1998, when then-Judge Patricia Cleary sentenced a pregnant woman to six months in prison, allegedly to prevent her from having an abortion. That, says the Feminists for Life activist, is when the media began reporting that late-term abortions were illegal, though Ohio has no such ban.

As late as December 8, The Plain Dealer was still reporting that "Yuriko Kawaguchi did not get out of jail in time to have a legal abortion." Kopp protested, and the error was clarified in a story the next day. But she hasn't had as much luck with the Free Times.

In 1999, the alt-weekly reported that "by the time all the legal wrangling came to an end, Kawaguchi was so close to the end of the second trimester that a legal abortion was questionable." Kopp says the paper has continued to leave that impression with readers ever since, despite her letters, which go unprinted, and phone calls, which go unreturned.

Editor Lisa Chamberlain disagrees. She says the use of "questionable" concerned the availability of late-term abortions, not their legality. Besides, the Free Times once ran a cover story about the anti-abortion group Feminists for Life's banishment from Lilith Fair and has run Kopp's letters before. There's no conspiracy here, says Chamberlain; she's just "not interested in the Free Times becoming the Abortion Debate Weekly."

But abortion is a hot topic in the paper, appearing in 51 stories or letters since September 1999. There's plenty of room for debate, counters Kopp, as long as it doesn't include the pro-life viewpoint.

"That's what's especially frustrating," says the self-avowed lefty, who believes she's persona non grata at Cleveland's most left-leaning paper. "Only presenting one perspective is not what lefties are supposed to be about. My main concern is that abortion-choice advocates fought and succeeded in keeping late abortions legal, yet repeatedly tell the public they're illegal. They can't have it both ways."

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